Junior artists of Mumbai struggle due to the pandemic

By Sreedev Krishnakumar

Laxmi Goswami, a junior artist, says that she has only been called for shooting once in the last three months. Her only son, who is also a junior artist, finds himself in a similar situation.

“During the first lockdown, we used to go to my brother’s home to have food. But when the lockdown was again announced this year, he went back to our village in Uttar Pradesh, and we could no longer rely on him,” said Goswami, who is a member of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE). She has been working as a junior artist since 2005, a year after her husband died. Goswami mainly used to get called for standing in as a body double for television serial actresses. Since the pandemic began, they have been struggling to survive.

Although shooting of movies and television shows have resumed, due to strict Covid-19 protocols, the lakhs of junior artists living in Mumbai are continuing to struggle. Many television and film shoots have moved to states with lesser restrictions, like Goa and Gujarat, leaving these artists in the lurch. During the first and second wave, several production houses and film stars came out to help them, but even that has become scarce now.

“This time I didn’t get any help from anybody. Whatever money the big production houses give out only reaches to some artists,” said Goswami. Their family is currently surviving on the borrowings they have taken and charity of others.

Laxmi Goswami (right) has worked as a body double for various TV serial actresses, including those like Supriya Pathak (left)

The pandemic has forced many artists to take up other jobs to survive. “We have seen many of our members taking up other jobs such as rickshaw drivers, swiggy delivery boys and watchmen. Many have also started selling vegetables. A lot of them have also gone back to their villages where they will at least have food to eat,” said BN Tiwari, President of FWICE. According to him, more than two lakh daily wage workers in the film industry have been impacted by the pandemic.

Goswami doesn’t think that female artists like her have the option of taking up other jobs. “Only men can work as a watchman or take up jobs like being a rickshaw driver. Female junior artists who have done courses on hairstyling and all can take up such jobs. What will those like me do?”

Naeem Salauddin Sange had no idea what to expect when the lockdown began. He had EMIs to pay, medical bills, rent and lots of other expenses, but no way to pay them. Sange has been working as a junior film artist for 23 years and is the sole breadwinner of his family, which consists of his mother, wife and two children. He got around Rs 8000 in total as aid from various production houses and actors, but that was barely enough to sustain his family for so many months. “I only survived by taking loans from some relatives and because of FWICE, which arranged rations for my family.”

Naeem Sange from the shooting location of a film before the pandemic

According to Tiwari, neither the federation nor any of the junior artists got any help from state or central governments. The only help they got were from Bollywood stars like Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn and Rohit Shetty, along with production houses such as Yash Raj Films and PVR who arranged vaccination camps for the artists.

A junior artist gets paid around Rs 1200 per day when they are called for filming. “These artists, in average, used to get around 10 days of work every month before the pandemic. But now, they barely get that much work in three months,” said Tiwari.

Sange now only gets a quarter of the work that he used to get before the pandemic. According to him, sets that would employ 500-600 junior artists before now only employs 10-20 of them.

The guiding principles to restart media entertainment industry, published by Maharashtra Film Cell, asks filmmakers to reduce or avoid junior artists on set. This along with other restrictions have meant that even those film and TV shootings which haven’t been moved to other states, are employing a far lesser number of people. “Before, when shootings used to happen out-of-station, we used to be taken along. But now, with Covid-19, filmmakers prefer to have people from those states itself,” said Goswami.

With little to no income or savings, these artists are living on the hope that the pandemic will end soon. “I just pray day and night for this pandemic to end so that we can get work like we used to before,” quavered Sange.

But neither Sange nor Goswami is ready to give up and go back to their villages. “I have struggled so much in life, so I won’t lose courage so easily, and I won’t go back to my village,” said Goswami.